Stigma and sitting with fear

Last month, I published and shared a post on my social media channels about using antidepressants to manage SAD and touched on the stigma I felt about them. It really seemed to resonate. So much so, that it had over 900 views. I received around 100 comments and private messages from friends, family, colleagues and even people I didn’t know. This response was completely unexpected – so humbling and overwhelming.

I felt such a wall of love and acceptance around me and over a month later I’m still feeling bowled over by it. Thank you so much if you’re reading this and you were one of the people who reached out to me. I’m not able to do justice to describing how much it meant to me.

So, what did we learn about stigma from this experience?

The first thing that became clear to me and hopefully to everyone else, is that the world doesn’t come crashing down around you if you share your experience of depression, anxiety, SAD, burnout, adrenal fatigue, mental/nervous breakdown… or any other common type of mental ill health.

I hope that if you saw the Facebook post you took strength and inspiration from the wonderful people who commented. You should be able to click on the comments icon after the post to read them:

I had a huge ‘vulnerability hangover’ after sharing this post and I wanted to delete it. How glad am I that I sat with that uncertainty and fear now though?! 🙂 If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have seen the level of support that people can show when we allow ourselves to be known.

Is stigma a misunderstood term?

Interestingly, some of the conversations highlighted people’s different understandings of what stigma is. It made me wonder whether we have different interpretations of how much of a problem stigma is because of these discrepancies.

In its dictionary definition, it sounds very severe: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” (Oxford Dictionary)

For me, it isn’t just about an obvious ‘mark’ that would indicate something about a person, that you could perceive from the outside. And it might not always feel like full-blown ‘disgrace’; it can also be disapproval or contempt. I believe that is still stigma.

Anything that incites shame around a condition, circumstance, character or behaviour, I would call stigmatising.

I’m really interested in hearing in the comments what you consider stigma to mean, if you feel able to share?

Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes…

This commonly-quoted Indian-American proverb of unknown origin is as wise and relevant today as it has ever been. When we look at what is happening in the world, we see so much suffering that stems from judging others.

Most mental health stigma seems to come from lack of knowledge. It’s okay for us not to know what we don’t know! But the distinction is that it’s not okay to negatively judge and criticise what we don’t know – that’s what makes it stigma.

Often, we can hold opinions about something that are not our own. We can soak up the general feeling and opinions about a topic like a sponge. Children in particular are primed to learn from others in this way. We can teach them well or poorly.

If you hear enough people criticising antidepressant users, for example, you can shame someone for taking them, without knowing anything about them.

The majority of people we know would consider themselves to be non-judgemental, I’m sure. If they say something out of lack of understanding we forgive them, when they respond in an open way as we have a conversation with them about the topic.

The need for empathy

Sadly, as is so often the case in life, our memories are coloured disproportionately by the minority. Those individuals and experiences that leave you feeling raw and vulnerable. Our primitive brain makes us protect ourselves from further harm by magnifying and making us feel fear.

I have an example to share with you from my own personal experience from a few years back. Talking about my experience of SAD one day to my team, my colleague interrupted me and said, “don’t be ridiculous; you can’t get depression because of the weather!” At first, I thought maybe what sounded like contempt was meant to be a joke. Her first language wasn’t English, so I understood that sometimes this can happen.

However, as the conversation progressed it quickly became obvious that the contempt and attempt to shame me was deliberate. She couldn’t empathise and refused to listen to my explanation, believing she was right and she knew more about depression than I did. The real kicker was that some time later she started to complain that she felt that the weather was making her tired and getting her down, while asking for my advice about a dawn simulator. Had she been able to empathise earlier she might have been able to recognise and head off her symptoms before they started to affect her.

Little Light Room - less stigma more love

Opening up…

The memory of this experience and others like it is what bubbled up in me as I was sharing my post last month. The irrational thoughts of ‘what if people think I’m weak or just being self-indulgent?’ and ‘will this damage my professional profile – what will my colleagues and clients think of me?’ were very loud and insistent!

So why did I not only publish the post, but share it publicly on my social media channels? Well, I feel passionately about the topic of improving mental health and our need to overcome stigma as a major barrier to this. But I felt like a fraud because I was still hiding the extent of my experience myself. I genuinely want to help people understand and feel understood, but fear was holding me back.

The reality is that most people are able to empathise, if we are brave enough to face down our fear of being judged and share. Only by more people being more open will we be able to overcome stigma. This isn’t easy for any of us and we must do it only when it’s right for us.

The reward has been that I felt more love and acceptance than I could ever have imagined when I shared. I hope one day we’ll talk as openly about our mental health as we do about having a common cold.

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